It is spring time so you know what that means? Football!
Spring ball is an important time for teams as they look to implement new systems, change plans, have an opportunity to make player evaluations and, most importantly figure out what positions are filled for the upcoming season. ASN college football expert JC Pearson takes a look at some of the key issues facing teams in Conference USA this spring and going into the 2015 season (last year’s records in parentheses).
Last season’s conference champion has perhaps the biggest void to fill of any team in CUSA and that’s replacing the back-to-back conference offensive player of the year in Rakeem Cato, who totaled 4,385 yards and 40 touchdown passes last season. Gunnar Holcombe and Michael Birdsong appear to be the two quarterbacks that will battle this spring to replace Cato. Running back Devon Johnson returns after rushing for 1,767 yards and 17 touchdowns to take some pressure off the inexperienced signal-callers. Defensively the front seven will be a concern having to replace six of the starters with linebacker DJ Hunter the lone returner.
The Bulldogs return 12 starters from last year’s team that lost in the conference championship game. They will be looking to Jeff Driskell, the Florida transfer, to take over at quarterback for the departed Cody Sokol. They return one of the best running backs in the conference in Kenneth Dixon, the only player in FBS to score in every game last season with 28 TDs — 22 rushing and 6 receiving. Wide receiver Trent Taylor was a second-team all-CUSA player and returns after catching 64 passes for 834 yards last season. Defensively the big question is how will they play without defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and his aggressive, attacking style. The Bulldogs led the nation with 42 forced turnovers and scored a nation-leading 170 points off those turnovers. Blake Baker takes over the defensive coordinator role. La. Tech will have arguably the best secondary in CUSA led by first-team all-conference Xavier Woods, Kentrell Brice at safety and Adairius Barnes at cornerback.
Rice will continue to try and build off of a school-record three straight bowl games. Leading the charge will be dangerous dual-threat quarterback Driphus Jackson, who had 2,842 yards for passing 24 touchdowns and 401 yards rushing. Productive running backs Jowan Davis and Darik Dillard return to form a very good duo. Defense will be a concern with only four starters returning. Leading the way will be all-CUSA first-teamer Brian Nordstrom and Graysen Schantz on the defensive line. Rice will have to replace all four secondary positions, which might not be so bad as they gave up 27 TD passes and only nine interceptions last year.
In head coach Sean Kugler’s two years he took the Miners from 2-10 to 7-6 and a bowl game. Kugler emphasizes toughness and physical play on both sides of the ball so this spring will be one of the toughest of all in CUSA. The mentality on offense is to run the ball and control the line of scrimmage which starts upfront with the line. They will be led by four returning starters including all-freshmen team members Wil Hernandez and Derek Elmendorph on the offensive line. Second-team all-CUSA running back Aaron Jones returns to lead the run-heavy offense. UTEP led CUSA and was second in the country in time of possession, averaging 34:57 per game. Defensively UTEP will have to replace six starters from last year with an emphasis on getting bigger and tougher against the run. They allowed an average of 5.2 yards per rush last year.
MTSU will be looking to get back to bowl eligibility, something they failed to do last year after losing a couple games down the stretch. Dual-threat quarterback Austin Grammer returns to lead the offense after throwing for 2,557 yards and rushing for 442 yards. MTSU was the second-best rushing team in CUSA last year, averaging 214 yards per game. That shouldn’t change much since they return four of the starting offensive linemen and four of the top five rushers from last year. Running back Shane Tucker had 12 TDs and proved to be a threat out of the backfield with 25 receptions. MTSU has to improve defensively after giving up an average of 452 yards per game but they will have two of the best defensive players in CUSA in linebacker TT Barber and DB Kevin Byard , who led CUSA with six interceptions. As usual with a Rick Stockstill team, the special teams were good in 2014 with an impressive five blocked kicks.
The Hilltoppers finished their first season in CUSA with a five-game winning streak, including a victory in the Popeye’s Bahamas Bowl. They should be looking for bigger and better this season as they will have one of the most explosive offenses in the country. With an experienced offensive line in front of one of the best quarterbacks in the country and CUSA MVP Brandon Doughty, who led the country with 4,830 yards passing and 49 TDs along with 1,542 yards rushing. Running back Leon Allen and the top two receivers also return, so the Hilltoppers should score more than the 44 points per game they put up last year. On the defensive side is where the improvements have to come. WKU was last in the conference in total defense, giving up 510 yards and 40 points per game. Second-team all-CUSA defensive back Wonderful Terry will be looked upon to lead the defense along with lineman Derik Overstreet.
The Roadrunners will be one of the least experienced teams in FBS in terms of returning starters (only five total) from a team that finished 4-8. They will have to replace the majority of their offense, which averaged only 17 points per game. They will rely on running back Jarveon Williams, who got a lot of playing time as a backup last year. UTSA received good news recently with the announcement that Michigan quarterback Russell Bellomy will transfer to UTSA in the summer after graduating and will be eligible to play in the fall. On the defensive side of the ball UTSA signed a number of junior college players to step in and fill a void. Defensive tackle Jonathan Tuiolosega is a name to watch. Special teams wise UTSA will also have to replace their all-conference kicker and kick returner. A lot of jobs will be open and won this spring for Larry Coker’s Roadrunners.
The Monarchs finished .500 in their first season at the FBS level but they will have a huge void to fill at quarterback after losing Taylor Heinike to graduation. They will look to Shuler Bentley to win the job this spring but he is very inexperienced. To help take some pressure off of the quarterback will be last season’s CUSA freshman of the year running back Ray Lawry. Other good news is a veteran receiving corps led by last year’s backup quarterback-turned-receiver David Washington and Zach Pascal. The offensive line will have CUSA all-freshman team member Darius Garcia returning. Defensively the Monarchs hope to make big strides. Rush defense was the worst in CUSA allowing 223 yards per game against them while the pass defense allowed 230 yards per game, gave up 26 TD passes and had only 5 interceptions. There are two CUSA all-freshman team members returning in defensive lineman Bunmi Rotimi and defensive back Christian Byrum.
In order for North Texas to get back to challenging for a conference championship, they must first find a quarterback. They tried three last year without much success. All three of them return in Andrew McNulty, Dajon Williams, and Josh Greer. Also in the mix will be junior college transfer Damarcus Smith. The strongest part of the team just may be the kickers. They return honorable mention all-conference kicker Trevor Moore and punter Eric Keena. North Texas returns not one player that made first or second team offense or defense last year so the problems at North Texas may be bigger than just finding a quarterback.
Southern Miss has the luxury of quarterback Nick Mullens returning after throwing for more than 200 yards in nine of his 10 starts last year. His continued growth and development should be aided by a deep and experience receiving group led by Michael Thomas and Casey Martin. USM will have to find a dependable RB this spring to help their anemic rushing attack; last year they averaged 96 yards per game. Defensively it is going to be a challenge finding a replacement for defensive tackle Rakeem Nunez-Roches but they will have to find a way to pressure opposing quarterbacks after only having 15 sacks last year. Defensive back Cornell Armstrong returns to help in the secondary.
The Panthers just might be the team that makes the biggest jump in 2015. They lost four games by a field goal or less while playing with a lot of freshman and sophomores. Now they all return with that experience and should win more of those close games. Let’s start in the backfield as all-freshmen team members Alex McGough at quarterback and Alex Gardner at running back return. First-team all-conference tight end Jonnu Smith is back after a 61 catch/710 yard season. His eight receiving touchdowns were the most by any tight end in FBS. Defensively, FIU will be led by do-it-all defensive back Richard Leonard who had four touchdowns (two on interceptions, one on a punt return and one on a fumble recovery). Leonard is also a dangerous return man averaging 26 yards per kickoff return and 24 yards per punt return to go along with his five interceptions. Defensive lineman Mike Wakefield returns from an eight-sack season and will be joined by Denzell Perine (6.5 sacks). The linebackers will be led by Anthony Wint, who averaged more five tackles per game.
Head coach Charlie Partridge will try to build stability and confidence in his team after going 3-9 and winless on the road in 2014. Unfortunately they lost a lot of talent in the likes of wide receiver Lucky Whitehead, tight end Alex Deleon and defensive back D’Joun Smith among others. Fortunately for the Owls they return arguably CUSA’s best dual-threat quarterback in Jacquez Johnson, who threw for 2,215 yards and 17 touchdowns while rushing for 513 yards and seven touchdowns. Left tackle Reggie Baincould become a future star. Some names to watch for on defense are defensive backs Cre’Von Leblanc and Sharrod Neasman, linebacker Robert Relf and defensive end Trey Hendrickson.
The 49ers will be moving up to the FBS level and CUSA after playing the last two seasons in FCS. Charlotte has never played an FBS team but they will have some experienced players as they return 19 starters from a year ago. Leading the way will be quarterback Matt Johnson. Running back Kalif Phillips had more than 1,000 yards rushing last year and receiver Austin Duke had over 1,000 yards receiving. Head coach Brad Lambert will tell you everything starts upfront so the biggest adjustment and test will be how the offensive and defensive lines can hold up week to week against bigger, stronger teams than they faced a year ago.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW
Alabama-Birmingham dropped football last season after finishing 6-6 overall and 4-4 in the conference, including a 45-24 victory over Southern Miss in the Blazers’ final game. A look at some of the UAB players who returning this season at other schools.
Cody Clements, QB: CUSA’s fourth-leading passer with a 145.6 efficiency rating, followed Blazers offensive coordinator Bryant Vincent to South Alabama. Clements, who completed 66.5% of his passes for 2,227 yards and 14 touchdowns with eight interceptions, will be joined by two of his UAB offensive linemen, Luke Dufour and Cameron Blankenship, among other UAB teammates.
Jordan Howard, RB: CUSA’s second-leading rusher last season as sophomore (1,587 yards, 13 touchdowns) transferred to Indiana, is expected to replace Tevin Coleman, declared early for the NFL draft after rushing for a school-record 2,036 yards last season.
SB Nation is keeping track of all the UAB transfers.
Top row from left: Middle Tennessee’s Austin Grammer (above, MTSU Athletics), UTEP’s Aaron Jones (below, UTEP Athletics), Rice’s Driphus Jackson (Rice Athletics), Marshall’s Devon Johnson (Marshall Athletics), Charlotte’s Austin Duke (Charlotte Athletics), Jonnu Smith (above), Lousiana Tech’s Jeff Driskel (Lousiana Tech Athletics)
Bottom row from left: UTSA’s Larry Coker (UTSA Athletics), Florida Atlantic’s Jaquez Johnson (above, FAU Athletics), Old Dominion’s Ray Lawry (ODU Athletics), Carlos Harris of North Texas (above, UNT Athletics), Western Kentucky’s Leon Allen (below, WKU Athletics), Nick Mullens of Southern Miss (USM Athletics)